Majestic Stieglitz Show Charts Modernist Course

Of the many things to be said about the extraordinary exhibition called Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries , which Sarah Greenough has organized at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the first is this: It not only illuminates a crucial chapter in the history of American modernism on a scale never before attempted, but it also serves as a model of what our museums can still achieve when they remain faithful to the highest traditions of aesthetic connoisseurship and historical scholarship in their most ambitious endeavors.

These traditions are now thought to be obsolete in many quarters of the art world, both here and abroad, having been supplanted by a trendy menu of allegedly “postmodern” gimmicks and gamesmanship. Yet, when it comes to the task of making significant works of art intelligible to a broad public, there is finally no substitute for old-fashioned connoisseurship and scholarly research. Absent these disciplines, too many of our museum exhibitions have lately been left to the vagaries of unbridled curatorial improvisation and intellectual solipsism. Which is a little like being at sea without a compass or a seaworthy craft.

This is just as true for charting the course of art in the modern era as it is the art of any other historical period. And in any attempt to chart the course of modernist art in 20th-century America, the life and work of Alfred Stieglitz (1864 -1946) is the necessary starting point. This is one reason why Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries is such an important event. Another reason is that the exhibition itself proves to be a nearly perfect account of its many-sided subject–an account that allows the art to tell its own story without the intervention of fanciful “new narratives.”

Alfred Stieglitz has long been a legend in the American art world, both as a master photographic artist in his own work and as the founder of the New York galleries which, beginning with the 291 Gallery in 1908, pioneered the exhibition and publication of European and American modernist art in this country. Legends serve a variety of functions in cultural life–as, indeed, they do in political life–but they are no substitute for the hard facts of history. They may even be an obstacle to our understanding of history, especially the history of art. That has certainly been true at times of Stieglitz’s legend, which for many people today has more to do with his romantic devotion to Georgia O’Keeffe than with his specific accomplishments in introducing the modernist art of Europe to the American public and advancing the careers of the first generation of American modernists–among them John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth and Paul Strand, as well as O’Keeffe and Stieglitz himself.

It is the great virtue of Modern Art and America that it re-assembles for us so many of the paintings, sculptures, photographs and collages that Stieglitz was the first to exhibit in this country–nearly 200 of them–and presents them to the public in a series of installations that attempt to approximate the simplicity and intimacy of Stieglitz’s original exhibitions. In this respect, certainly, the design staff of the National Gallery is to be congratulated for remaining so faithful to Stieglitz’s spirit and resisting every temptation to turn Modern Art and America into a blockbuster-type extravaganza.

As a direct consequence of this fidelity to simplicity and intimacy in the installations, we are given a more immediate sense of what it must have been like for a visitor to 291 to encounter the first Cézanne watercolors, the first Brancusi sculptures, the first Matisse drawings, the first Cubist pictures by Picasso and Braque, and the first abstract painting by Kandinsky to be seen in public on this side of the Atlantic–even the first African sculptures!–in the years preceding the 1913 Armory Show. What is even more amazing is that so many of these paintings and sculptures, which Stieglitz himself was seeing for the first time, are among those recognized today as the greatest masterworks of their kind.

The paradox of Stieglitz’s genius, of course, is that he did not set out to become a dealer in paintings and sculpture. His primary vocation, after all, was that of a serious photographic artist. The Photo-Secession project that he initiated in 1905 was designed to advance an informed aesthetic understanding of photography. Yet when the opportunity presented itself to exhibit Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, et al., Stieglitz seems to have immediately understood their aesthetic significance.

From the outset, moreover, he combined this project of launching the European avant-garde in this country with a passion for nurturing an American avant-garde. Early on in Modern Art and America , Marin watercolors are exhibited in the company of Kandinsky’s The Garden of Love (Improvisation Number 27) (1912) and a selection of Stieglitz photographs. The fifth room in the exhibition is devoted to 10 of Marsden Hartley’s early abstract paintings and, in my view anyway, constitutes one of the most spectacular sections of the entire exhibition. Some of these paintings, especially the Portrait of a German Officer (1914), caused both Hartley and Stieglitz a good deal of grief when they were exhibited at 291 during World War I, while anti-German feeling was running pretty high in New York. Stieglitz well understood that such paintings would be impossible to sell at the time, but he showed them anyway and took the heat.

Inevitably, perhaps, Stieglitz’s focus shifted in the aftermath of the Armory Show, which, by establishing the importance of the European avant-garde on a grand scale, left him free to concentrate on American art and photography. The galleries he presided over after 291 closed in 1917, and his subsequent galleries–the Anderson Galleries, founded in 1921, the Intimate Gallery, 1925, and An American Place, 1929–were entirely devoted to his established roster of American painters and photographers. It was in the 1920′s, moreover, that Georgia O’Keeffe came to occupy an unrivaled place in Stieglitz’s life and in his work, as an object of romantic passion and as an admired artist. This was the period in which he devoted no fewer than 330 photographs to the subject of O’Keeffe herself. (Mercifully, a mere five examples are included in Modern Art and America .) As a consequence of this romance, there are more examples of O’Keeffe’s paintings in the exhibition than their aesthetic merits justify, but among them is a bold abstract painting I hadn’t seen before– Black, White and Blue (1930)–which may be the best picture she ever painted.

In the galleries devoted to the later years of Stieglitz’s career, his own work as a photographer looms larger–and justifiably so, since he was certainly a greater artist than O’Keeffe–and there are wonderful examples of the later work of Hartley and Marin, and a generous representation of the oeuvres of Dove and Demuth. Both in the scale of the exhibition and in its high level of quality, Modern Art and America does more to confirm the importance of this first generation of American modernists than any other single exhibition of their work I have seen–and I’ve pretty nearly seen all of them over a period of 50 years. I regret the omission of Alfred E. Maurer and certain other artists whose work Stieglitz exhibited, but there can be no doubt that the artists in this exhibition are the ones whose work meant the most to Stieglitz himself.

Owing both to its aesthetic quality and its intellectual probity, this is also an exhibition which effectively re-opens the subject of this first generation of American modernists to further study. So does the show’s equally extraordinary 600-page catalog, which instantly becomes the most important study of its subject. All praise, then, to the exhibition’s curator, Sarah Greenough, and to her research associate, Charles Brock, for their superb work on this exhibition and its catalog. It would be premature to suggest that this event signals a change in current museum practice, but it is a pleasure, all the same, to see what can happen when a project of this magnitude is organized by grown-ups for grown-ups–if I may so put it.

Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries remains on view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington through April 22, and will not travel.